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Maturi: Big Ten hockey was inevitable

Dutch Cragun greeted University of Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi to t

In a few years college hockey may be almost unrecognizable.

Earlier this year the Big Ten announced it would form a hockey conference in two seasons, with Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving the 50-year-old Western Collegiate Hockey Association to play with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and the new program at Penn State.

On Thursday, reports surfaced that the WCHA will lose five more schools to a new league in two years. The Grand Forks Herald reported Thursday that Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota will leave to create a new conference in 2013-14 with current CCHA member Miami of Ohio.

The newspaper also reported the new league, which might also include Notre Dame, is expected to be announced Wednesday. The new league would leave the WCHA with five teams — Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State Mankato and St. Cloud State. 

University of Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi, in an interview before Friday’s 11th annual Dutch Open at Cragun’s Legacy Courses, believed a Big Ten hockey conference was inevitable.

“Today it’s a business, it’s about television, it’s about access,” Maturi said. 

“I was a little surprised, to be honest, that other teams would leave the WCHA and form a conference on their own,” he added. “I understand the logic. I’m certainly respectful of those institutions. I just hope the sport of hockey hangs in there with those teams. They’re either going to have to join the remaining CCHA and WCHA teams and form a conference.

“The sport of hockey has been good to me, and certainly to the state of Minnesota. Coach (Don) Lucia and I are going to meet Tuesday to discuss our non-conference schedule. We would like to continue to play our in-state rivals on an annual basis if at all possible.”

Maturi discussed a wide variety of additional topics before he hit the golf course Friday.

Q. You hired Jerry Kill as head football coach about six months ago. What are your impressions of him so far?

A. “I’ve got to be careful with my words. I told President Bruininks when I made the recommendation to hire Jerry, after a pretty extensive search, discussing our options and interviewing several candidates, that I don’t think we’re going to win the press conference and I think the summer could be a challenge.

“But we hired a person, I believe, gives us the best chance in the long haul at the University of Minnesota. I think Jerry fits our values. He’s very Minnesota-like. He will build a program and will do it the right way.

“To be honest with you, I never dreamt ... he not only won the press conference, he’s just won everybody over that he’s met. I didn’t expect that part, so I’m really excited about the part that I believed in strongly, to see him coach, to see the team take the field. I understand it’s a process and it’s going to take some time, but we have a chance.”

Q. Nebraska joins the Big Ten this fall. Football will be split into two six-team divisions — Legends (which includes Minnesota) and Leaders. How do you like the new setup?

A. “I think the Gophers came out pretty well. From a competitive standpoint, we’ve got some tough teams in our division. Our crossover game is Wisconsin. I don’t believe there’s a team in the Big Ten that can be more pleased with its every year opponents. We have trophy games with Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, which are pretty special, guaranteed. We’re also going to be playing Nebraska every year, and we’re talking about a trophy game. I think that in itself is tremendous.

“Then, to have Michigan State and Northwestern in our division, especially Northwestern, with the geographical location, fits us well. I’m excited.

“What people need to remember about Nebraska coming into the conference is it’s more than football. Football is the only divisional sport. This gives our fans a chance to go watch the tennis team, the golf team, the swim team, the track team, the wrestling team, whatever it is, and it’s not that much of a trip for Minnesotans to Lincoln (Neb.), nor for Cornhusker fans to come to the Twin Cities.”

Q. You get slammed by media and fans for your support of minor sports. Media and fans think you should focus on major sports. How do you handle the criticism?

A. “I think it’s one of the challenges I face as an administrator, and wonder whether I want to continue. 

“I’m not naive to the engines of our 25-sport program, football, basketball and hockey. There’s no question they’re the entire financial engine of who we are and what we need to be. We need to be successful in those programs, and support them accordingly, but I also believe that athletics should be an extension of the institution. Minnesota always believes in a broad-based program.

“We’ve had success in our Olympic sports. I tell people I’m (those sports’) athletic director too, as much as I’m somebody else’s. 

“I’m so proud of our 25-sport program. I’m pleased to have been able to maintain all 25 during my tenure. I’m worried about the future because of finances, but I don’t think football, basketball and hockey are slighted because we have 25 sports. Someday, that may be the case and if it is then we have to make some decisions.”

Q. Your contract expires in June 2011. What does the future hold for you?

A. “More is made of it than I would like to make of it. I never dreamt it would be about me, that’s not who I am. 

“I have one year left on the contract. The fact of the matter is President Bruininks, after he announced this was his last year, approximately a year ago, had offered me an extension. I said ‘Bob, I don’t think it’s right for me to sign the extension because maybe the new president wants to go in a different direction. I’m 66. If I were 50 I probably wouldn’t feel that way. And, that’s an honest answer.

“When I met with President Kaler he made a good point. He said ‘Maybe you don’t want to work for me.’ I need to enjoy these last years, not that I haven’t enjoyed the nine that I’ve been here. But if the fit is right for me, and the fit is right for President Kaler, we’ll go longer than a year.

“I think people are making way too much out of it. I’m going to work as hard as I can for the next 12 months and who knows what happens after that?”

Q. Facility improvements are in the planning stages — a new baseball stadium, a basketball practice facility. How close are they to coming to fruition?

A. “We’re in the fund-raising stages for baseball. We’re over $5 million, we need another $2 million to $2.5 million to get there. We kind of need another 7-figure gift to get us over the hump. Smaller gifts, as thankful as we are, probably aren’t going to get us there, but we’re still working hard at it. 

“I think there’s hope. I’m hopeful by the end of the next academic year we will have the money, and start construction next June or so and be ready to play. John Anderson and his baseball program deserves it. They’ve got a great, storied history. The present Siebert Field is not suited for us to play at, so we need to find a way.

“As far as the basketball practice facility is concerned it’s the arms’ race that exists. Only Minnesota and Northwestern don’t have them in the Big Ten, let alone other major BCS-level schools. It’s important. It’s not important just for Tubby (Smith) and Pam (Borton), it’s important for the future of Gopher basketball. 

“We play in an older arena. As much as we love it, it’s not impressionistic to young kids. We need to show the commitment we have, and we need to provide practice opportunities. (Williams Arena is) shared. We use it for many other activities as well, and it’s the only court. There’s not really off-courts in which to practice. So it’s a necessity and we’re going to hopefully raise the money necessary to get it done.”